How Were Our Energy Predictions? An Analysis of the First Year Energy Use: Solar and Energy Performance


We had spent a lot of time planning and designing a house that would be energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing, and cost effective. This is a fine balance to try to find. However, it really is a big guessing game until you actually live in the space and track it’s performance. You can run all of the computer programs you want, but you really don’t know how things will be until you’re in and living your normal life.

We had installed PV solar panels on the house to combat some of our energy use with the hope that someday we could work towards a Net Zero home, but this too, seemed to be a big guess as to how well it would perform.

In the planning and designing stages of the house we ran a couple different energy models on the house. The first is called the “HOT2000” program. “HOT2000 is an energy simulation and design tool for low-rise residential buildings.  This software is widely used across Canada to support program, policy and regulatory development and implementation.  HOT2000 is developed and managed by the Office of Energy Efficiency at Natural Resources Canada” (NRCAN). It was originally designed for use with the R2000 energy efficiency program, which was an early promoter of green home building in Canada.

We later used the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP), which is now the widely used software program for building highly efficient homes worldwide.

My intent with this article is to report the varying predictions of the these two programs, as well as our predicted solar generation, and also to show our actual energy use for the year of 2016 – our first full year in the new house. I’ll also report some considerations and possible options for the future.


I had been very curious about this when we were in the early stages of planning the house. Most of what I read was the predictions of various homes, but I’d only come across one house that actually tracked and reported its energy use – that being the Mill Creek Net Zero House in Edmonton, AB, Canada. Which, although using exceptionally little energy, did not meet it’s net zero target. That being said, it was very close.

I fully did not expect our home to be anywhere close to net zero, but we hoped that over the next number of years we could gradually build our solar panel array (as costs come down) to eventually reach our goal.

OK, let’s get to the numbers:

HOT2000 Predictions:

Annual Space Heating Energy Consumption: 7159 kWh

Annual Domestic Hot Water (DHW) Energy Consumption: 3409 kWh

Annual Appliance Energy Consumption: 8760 kWh

TOTAL = 19,328 kWh/year

PHPP Predictions:

Annual Space Heating Energy Consumption: 7584 kWh

Annual DHW Energy Consumption: 3974 kWh

Annual Appliance Energy Consumption: 11,310 kWh

TOTAL = 22,868 kWh/year

PV Array Predictions (6.2 KW)

PHPP Estimation: 7321 kWh/year

Solar Installer’s Estimation: 9300 kWh/year

So obviously there are discrepancies between the HOT2000 and the PHPP. Although their prediction of Heating and DHW are quite close, surprisingly the Appliance use was significantly different. Also, surprising was the discrepancy in the solar predictions – I was a bit disconcerted by the drastic difference of 2000 kWh/year!!

For comparison’s sake, according to Stats Canada website’s most recent 2011 home energy use data, a Saskatchewan home consumes an average of 30,555 kWh/year (110 GJ), of which electricity for appliance use is 8889 kWh/year (32 GJ).

Drum roll please.

… Actually first, some clarifications. All I have is our actual overall energy use. I cannot separate out Heating vs. DHW vs. Appliances unfortunately, although this would be interesting. The following information is taken from the solar panel’s generation and the Electrical meter. I tracked each month and have recorded it below.

OK, now the drum roll.



January: Solar generated = 315 kWh vs. Energy Use = 3323 kWh

  • Yikes! I was a pretty worried when I saw this. That being said, January was very cold and has very short, dark days (-20° to -30°Celsius most days. We kept the house around 71°F).

February: Solar generated = 553 kWh vs. Energy Use = 2706 kWh

  • February is always a cold month. Although you can see the solar was getting a bit more sunlight already as the days lengthened.

March: Solar generated = 603 kWh vs. Energy Use = 1716 kWh

  • This was getting a bit better still. I lowered the house temperature to 69°F. It was getting warmer outside and more solar gain.

April: Solar generated = 979 kWh vs. Energy Use = 1385 kWh

  • April was warm and sunny. Nice spring weather. Started to not need the in-floor heat on at all during the day, but still ran it during the night.

May: Solar generated = 960 kWh vs. Energy Use = 1029 kWh

  • Almost net zero for the month. It was a very nice month. We were running our river pump frequently to water new grass, which I think increased energy use quite a lot.

June: Solar generated = 1434 kWh vs. Energy Use = 989 kWh

  • Net Positive in a big way. Beautiful month. Obviously the longest days of the year.

July: Solar generated = 956 kWh vs. Energy Use = 511 kWh

  • The first two weeks of July were cloudy and rainy which is unusual for July.

August: Solar generated = 950 kWh vs. Energy Use = 645 kWh

  • This month was very rainy as well, which again, isnot normal. Usually August is very hot.

September: Solar generated = 778 kWh vs. Energy Use = 611 kWh

  • Cool and cloudy. I replanted grass seed and was running the river pump a lot again.

October: Solar generated = 315 kWh vs. Energy Use = 1478 kWh

  • October sucked!! 315 kWh is the same as January! It snowed on October 4th. We had to turn the heat back on. There were only 2-3 sunny days all month.

November: Solar generated = 390 kWh vs. Energy Use = 1750 kWh

  • Cloudy month, but had some mild days mid-month with above freezing temperatures. Still, we generated more solar in November then October, which should not happen.

December: Solar generated = 229 kWh vs. Energy Use = 2857 kWh

  • Shortest days of the year and extremely cold (-40°F). What do you expect?


Actual Solar PV Generated = 8189 kWh

Actual Household Energy Consumed = 19,000 kWh

Actual Total Energy Used (consumption – PV) = 10,811 kWh


I’m extremely pleased with these numbers! I’ve been waiting for two and a half years to know what our actual energy use would be.

We actually used less overall energy then was predicted by both the HOT2000 (19,328 kWh/year, although it was close) and a LOT less then PHPP (22,868 kWh/year), which is surprising that it was so off… It makes me wonder how close we would be to meeting the Passive House standard given the actual energy use is 3868 kWh less then it predicted… Hmm. Maybe we should have tried to hit that airtightness target of 0.6 ACH after all. Oh well.

Nonetheless, the overall energy use of 19,000 kWh is very good (and such a nice round number too!). We did not do anything different in terms of our behaviour except to just be smart and not be wasteful. I still baked bread every weekend and we used our larger appliances just like we normally would. We have two refrigerators and two deep freezers in the house. All the lights are LEDs. We try to hang our clothes to dry. We used our wood stove occasionally, maybe 2-3 times per week, but mostly just for ambiance and occasionally on the extremely cold days. That being said, based on the predicted numbers, the heating energy likely accounts for about 50% of our overall energy use. Makes me wonder too how much better we could do if we burned wood a bit more often?

As for the actual solar PV generation (8189 kWh), it pretty well split the difference between the installer’s predicted 9300 kWh/year and the PHPP prediction of 7321 kWh/year. I think this past year was on the cloudier side for sure. We had a lot of rain in the Spring and even more in the Fall, which is very unusual. Followed by an extremely early snowfall which seriously cut into our PV generation (see October – brutal). It probably would be closer to the installer’s prediction on a typical year (will have to see what 2017 brings).

Still based on the actual numbers, our solar panels did cover nearly 45% of our overall energy use for 2016. We would however need to double our solar panels (add another 6.2 KW array) to meet Net Zero with consistency year to year. Who knows, maybe in the coming years the costs will drop more and perhaps government incentives will increase. One can hope.

Comparing our house to the average Saskatchewan home consumption of 30,555 kWh, we did very well. Using 37% less energy then the average home. And when you take into account the solar energy generated that drops us further to using 65% less energy then the average house! Sweetness.

Considering that we are completely on electric energy, it makes sense to make the house as energy efficient as possible. The cost of electricity for us is $0.12224/kWh (while cost for natural gas power is about $0.04/kWh equivalent), which works out to an electricity bill of $1321.54/year (10,811 kWh x 0.12224). We do however have to pay a basic service fee of $32.61/month (even when we are net positive in a month) which sucks and then 5% tax. That brings our absolute costs for the year to $1798.50/year or $149.88/month, which is about half the cost of our previous homes power and electricity bill. I’m ok with that.


This post was updated on March 4, 2017. 

Floor plan: the long-winded version

I’ve had a few questions over the last number of months about our floor plan. How we decided on things and why. Way back before we started construction I’d wrote extensively about the design and planning of the house. It wasn’t easy! We thought we knew exactly what we wanted initially. But it really wasn’t until we had 13 designs/redesigns that we felt really good about the house we were going to build. If you’re curious about that process, please read the links as I go into a lot of detail about the process, decisions, considerations and some of the struggles that went with that.

Despite all of that prep work, it’s really difficult to fully imagine what the house will be like, how it will flow, and if you will have any regrets (even if you have a 3D walk through), until you’ve actually lived in it. We spent 10 months planning and designing the house and I’m glad we took that much time to do it (I’m grateful for the patience of our house designer and friend, Crystal at Bldg Studio). We maybe could have even spent longer, but I’m not sure that we’d have changed anything. Nearly all of the things I’d, let’s say “tweak” if I could, I don’t think I’d have realized until we’d actually lived here awhile. The funny thing is, and I’d been told this before, after you build your first house you’d know exactly how you’d want to build your second house. Don’t get me wrong though – I love our house and I’m so happy with so many of the decisions we made early on, but I think I’d know how to make our next house even better (or maybe by the third or fourth)…

Anyways, my plan here is to show you our floor plan and then walk through some of the things I’d change if I were to do it again.

The first and most important thing was to not build too large. We wanted a quaint, modern farmhouse. We’d lived in a large house (6 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms) and it was just too much – too much space, too much stuff, too much cleaning. Between that house and the new one, we lived in a very small 600 square foot cabin with two small bedrooms and 1 bathroom for 14 months while we built. The cabin was too small, but we realized that we didn’t need as much space as we thought we might.

After 13 house designs, we finally settled on the following, a bungalow with a full height basement with a main floor square footage of 1440 sq.ft. to the exterior walls (remember our walls are 16″ thick) which equalled an interior floor space of 1240 sq.ft. The interior basement space is the same size, so that gives us an overall heated interior floor space of 2480 sq.ft. The ceilings are 9′ in both the main floor and basement.

Ok so onto the floor plan. For reference’s sake to the proceeding floor plan, the house is square to the four directions: top is North, bottom is South, left is west and right is east. On our land the best view, facing the river, is south and east. We have a shelter belt of trees (spruce, pine, and amur cherry) blocking the prevailing winds from the North and West. Our yurt and chicken coop are about 50′ from the west door (left side of picture). The edge of the river is 160′ from the south/west corner of the house (including hillside).

We wanted to have the house feel very open and connected to the beautiful surrounding landscape so it’s really difficult to fully understand the layout of the house without seeing where we live…

This is our front yard:

So when designing the house, our priorities were: 1) to maximize the connection to the land and views, 2) to optimize our energy efficiency, and 3) to be cost effective.

Main Floor:


The main door is on the north east corner. We have a driveway that comes to the back of the house (north side) and in the next year or so we will build a detached garage on the north side of the house. One thing that bugs me in some homes is a main entrance that opens into the heart of the house, like right into the living room. I don’t like that. It seems like such an invasion of privacy to me. Not that we get many strangers coming to our house, but even still I find it very nice to be able to greet people at the door, give them lots of room to take their jacket and shoes off and then allow the house to be “introduced” or revealed to them as they’re welcomed into the main living space. The one thing I would change in the entrance way now is I would have made the window smaller. It faces east and is a beautiful view and brings in some awesome light, but it doesn’t need to be as big as it is (48″ wide). Being east facing it’s an energy loser for us. Oh well.

As you come into the house from the main entrance, the space really opens up to the great room which is essentially, a large wall of windows. The south facing windows are all 16″ from the floor and are 68″ tall (this was purposeful so that the top of the doors line up with the top of the windows creating a continuous symmetrical line around the house). They let in a tonne of natural light and frame the river and river bank. They also function for passive solar heating in the winter. The windows are like a massive, constantly moving and changing landscape portrait (we don’t need any landscape portraits in our house!).

I will say that we purposely put the small half bathroom near the main entrance for two reasons. The first was that we did not want a door coming off the main space to a bathroom. That’s gross. Second, we spend a lot of time outside, we get dirty, and we did not want to be tracking mud and dirt into the house to use the washroom.

We placed a large storage closet in the hallway leading to the great room, which stores our recycling, vacuum, dog food and a bunch of other miscellaneous stuff. Don’t underestimate the amount of storage you need! It’s the difference between a cluttered or a clean house.

The great room includes our kitchen, living room and dining room. This is where we spend 90% of our time. I love this space. We’d actually debated about about not doing an “open” kitchen, but I’m so glad we did it this way. The kitchen really is the heart of the home. We have friends and family over almost every weekend and I cook a lot. There’s nothing worse then being stuck in the kitchen while all your friends are visiting in the other room. This way, I can be preparing food while still visiting with everyone and often now people are willing to pitch in and help with food prep and cleanup. Success.

The kitchen island is 8’x3′ with an induction cooktop. We have a floor to ceiling pantry, and cupboard with a built-in fridge, microwave and oven behind the island. I highly recommend extending the cupboards to the ceiling. I’ve never understood why some people stopped their cupboards at 7′ and then have an awkward space between there and the ceiling which simply collects dust. We use a small step ladder to reach the top cupboards which stores those occasionally/rarely used kitchen appliances we all have. In the northeast corner of the kitchen is open shelves which holds glasses, coffee cups and some pretty things. We’d been hesitant about open shelves, but I think in the right amount they look great and are very practical. The kitchen sink faces an east window overlooking the river. Having a window with a view in front of the sink makes doing the dishes so much more enjoyable. We extended the east counters and lower cupboards nearly all the way to the corner window to maximize our storage space. All of our lower cupboards are drawers and they are great. The window seat also has drawers underneath for more storage. We do not have any upper cupboards or shelves on the east wall. It is very clean, tiled from counter to ceiling. Our total counter space is around 15′. In the book “The Pattern Language” (which we relied on heavily for the design), Christopher Alexander recommends a minimum of 14′. I’d thought that was excessive initially, but I’d say he’s bang on. I can be baking bread, fermenting sauerkraut and kombucha, have a sink full of dishes and ones drying beside it, and still have plenty of room to prepare dinner.

On the other side of the island we have three stools and on the end facing the sink is an open lower shelf to store our heavy cast irons pots. Check out this post for a photo tour of the kitchen.

The dining table is between the island and the south windows. The table is 101″ by 33″ and seats 10 people comfortably. I have to admit I had no idea if our spacing was going to be right until the day we moved our table and chairs in and had our first meal. This is the difficult part about designing a house – how much space do you leave between things? It is such a subtle amount, we’re talking 1-2″ of space that will make something comfortable or cramped. I’m glad to say that we nailed this though (thanks in large part to my mother who is an interior designer and helped us with all of these tricky spacing decisions). But when designing your own house these are the decisions that make a huge difference – and you need to know your furniture. For example, can you have someone sitting at the island on the stool and someone sitting on a dining chair behind them and still have room for some to walk between them? Trust me, I would be so annoyed if I couldn’t do this.

The rest of the great room is occupied with the living room, which includes a lounge chair, sectional couch and area rug. I’ve never been a big fan of area rugs before we lived here, but putting a nice wool rug down (especially on concrete floor), not only is nice for your feet and to give kids an area to play (“don’t leave the rug!”) but it also differentiates space nicely. We placed the wood burning stove in front of the window. When people had looked at the plans initially they’d said, “you really want to do that?” I have to say that this is one of the best decisions we made. The stove is a very attractive Morso stove from Denmark. A lot of people will tuck a stove into the corner of a room, but I love a wood burning fire and again, as written in “The Pattern Language” (have you bought it yet?), all people in the space should be able to see and enjoy the view and heat of the fire. Also, the stove does not block our view by any means, if anything, it makes it more interesting.

I will also say one more thing about the height of the window sills – this was very intentional, placing them at 16″ creates the same height as your standard dining room chair. This way you have natural bench seating throughout the house.

Behind the couch on the far west wall of the great room is a nook for our amp, record player, speakers and LPs. I’m glad that we added this, but my only regret on this space is we could have made the whole room about 10-12″ wider, which would have allowed me to put a narrow credenza or bookshelf behind the couch. Oh well – next time!

The door on the south side is mostly glass and leads onto our large deck.

The master bedroom is not overly big. We had had a gigantic, massive bedroom before and it just seemed unnecessary. I just sleep here. We did not put in a walk-in closet. We had one before, but it allowed us to collect more clothes that we didn’t wear. Having enough space is good, but having too much space you can lose track of what you have and eventually you realize you have a tonne of junk you don’t wear and don’t need. I like the closet size. There’s more than enough room for Darcie’s and my clothes but if we fill it up then that means we need to get rid of stuff. The window in this room is really big. It’s cool, but it is unnecessarily large. I like being able to wake up to the sun and see the river while I lie in bed, but it doesn’t need to be as wide as it is. It could easily be three-quarters to half the size and still give us the things we like about it.

I do wish that we could have found a way to put in a laundry shoot. I know that a lot of places don’t allow these, but we could have done it where we are.

We did not do a true ensuite bathroom. This was done for a couple of reasons, the first was that we wanted the shower and bathroom to be accessible for whoever is in the second bedroom. Typically if you have an ensuite you need another bathroom on the same floor with a tub/shower. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of cleaning bathrooms all day. I did that in our old house – remember, we had FOUR bathrooms! So unnecessary. We also wanted the shower to be close to the outside door so that we could come in, strip off our clothes and go right into the shower – we are dirty people out here. The bathtub is the old clawfoot tub we refinished which is a real beauty. I love the double-sink and the large vanity. No more are Darcie and I trying to push each other out of the way for sink or mirror space – it will save your marriage! We also put in a “water closet” which is the tiny doored room in the bathroom for the toilet. We had this in our 100 year old house and it was very smart. Do you know how disgustingly dirty toilets can be when flushed? Yucky.

And yes, we have an outdoor shower.

The second bedroom is a fun little room. It’s not a perfect square due to the stairs on the north side of the house. Currently it’s Darcie’s sewing room, but it will make a fun kids room. There is an option of extending the raised platform to make a sleeping space under the window or to put bunk bends towards the other end. Kids love nooks and alcoves (according to both my childhood memories and “The Pattern Language”) so the raised platform above the stairs, walled on three sides gives a nice little space to cozy up and read a book or hide away.

I really like the side door at the end of hall leading to the coop and yurt. It is glazed like the door leading to the deck so it brings nice light into the hallway, but it also has a small transom window above it that opens. This way we have cross-ventilation through the whole house. From the transom to the operable window above the kitchen sink and from the north side window (at the top of the stairs) to the small operable window adjacent to the wood burning stove.

Phewf! That took longer than I thought to write about. OK, onto the basement.



At the bottom of the stairs is a wide landing about 6′ wide. This is wider than your standard hallway by quite a bit. But, in a basement it’s nice to feel like you are not tunnelling under ground or in some dark space, which basements can often feel like. The ceilings are very high, just over 9′ tall, which makes it not “feel” like a basement. We also placed large windows on the east side and one on the south, they are 5′ and 10′ wide. We did not put more south windows down here due to the deck above.

The first room at the bottom of the stairs is the cellar. This is an unheated space, but not sealed from the rest of the house. We’d considered making it a true cold room with venting to the outside and we could still do this, but I’ve been reluctant to do so as I’m worried it will be a big energy draw to the rest of the house, even if we totally seal it. Also, with a fridge and freezer in there I question whether it would even be cold enough with venting. Currently it primarily functions as a large pantry with lots of shelving for dry goods. Living outside of town it’s nice to have a bit of stock pile of food including canning that we’ve done.

We wanted a large laundry room with a sink and cupboard space. It’s very nice to have a contained space for this and a place to hang clothes to dry and do ones ironing. It is also easy to let stuff pile up and simply close the door on it!

The mechanical room is really big, but it also holds our water tank. Now that we’ve lived with the water tank and I’ve recognized my dread of having 2000 gallons of water leaking into my basement – doing it over, I’d likely put the tank underground in a cistern outside with a pipe leading in. That way if anything were to fail with the tank, well, it would just water my grass rather than flood the basement. We might still change this at some point down the road, but of course, it is always more work and money after the fact.

The family room is also very large, nearly the same size as the “great room” on the main floor. You might we recall that we have exposed concrete walls in the basement and exposed steel beams so this definitely has a pretty industrial feel down here. We have a TV and sectional couch (and area rug) in the corner against the wall of the mechanical room. The rest of the space is fairly open although Darcie has a large weaving floor loom on the other side… It would be a perfect size for a pool table, but Darcie disagrees.

The bathroom down here is really cool. I’d wanted to do a Japanese bath, like a real hand-built wooden tub, that is, until I found out the cost is ~$9000. Scratch that. Instead we found a deep round two-person tub that we wrapped in cedar. It is open to the shower that is also open to the rest of the bath. Here’s a photo I took awhile back. I like the other bathrooms in the house a lot, but this one is rad.

Under the stairs is another cellar, this one is where I make my beer and wine and where we let the ferments sit. I’ve put a bunch of shelves under the stairs for storage. Can’t have enough storage, I tell ya.

And lastly, is the basement bedroom. This bedroom is pretty bad-ass with two walls of exposed concrete. Teenager-me would have loved this room (I still do, but I would have really loved it then).


All in all. We really are happy with the layout of the house and the planning time we spent to get it as “right” as possible. Sure there a couple minor things we would have changed, but they certainly are not major things. It’s not easy to get it perfect – in fact, it might be impossible. But I’d recommend when planning and designing your house to tour as many homes as possible. If you get into a space that feels good, try to analyze what it is – is it the window placement, the size, the spacing? Take measurements of your furniture and make sure your architect or house designer lays out your rooms so that you have proper spacing. Measure your favourite rooms in your current house or the houses that you go into and say, “Oh I like this.”

Buy and read “The Pattern Language.” It is worth it’s weight in gold.

Talk to people who have built and ask them what they “nailed it” on and what they wish they would have done differently (everyone will have at least a few things). Do smart things. Design it for yourself. Don’t design it for someone else or “resale value.” That’s silly. But, at the same time, I’d caution you against doing something very “out there” – unless you’ve done a lot of houses before and you’ve evolved to the “out there” point. You never know, your first home build, well, it might not be your last.

Kitchen Tour

We relied heavily on the Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander for our kitchen design.

I love what he writes about kitchens:

This pattern defines an ancient kind of kitchen where the cooking and the eating and the living are all in a single space… Make [the kitchen] large enough to hold a good big table and chairs, some soft and some hard, with counters and stove and sink around the edge of the room; and make it a bright and comfortable room… Give the kitchen light on two sides.

Cooking is uncomfortable if the kitchen counter is too short and also if it is too long… There is no need for the counter to be entirely “built-in” as it is in many modern kitchens – it can even consist of free-standing tables or counter tops.


Dark gloomy kitchens are depressing. The kitchen needs the sun more than other rooms, not less… Place the main part of the kitchen counter on the south and southeast side so that sun can flood in and fill the kitchen with yellow light both morning and afternoon.


Cupboards that are too deep waste valuable space, and it always seems that what you want is behind something else… Cover the walls with narrow shelves of varying depth but always shallow enough that things can be placed on them one deep – nothing hiding behind anything else…


Without communal eating, no human group can hold together…Make the common meal a regular event. The lunch can become an event; a gathering; something that each of us put our love and energy into on our day to cook.


The kitchen island and lower cabinetry are all rift and quarter sawn white oak. We designed the kitchen with Ryan Unger of Rhine Artisans. A good friend and an amazing wood worker. It was really fun designing the kitchen with him. It was his suggestion to do the interesting Japanese dovetail joinery on the kitchen island.

The pantry cupboards are a sprayed white maple. We had debated about natural wood here as well, but I like the transition of the white pantry cabinetry as it meets the white pine ceiling. Sometimes, rarely, there is such a thing as too much wood.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to find bar or counter stools. It seems mandatory that they be either super ugly or crazy expensive. Darcie found these 3 for $40 on Kijiji and painted the upper legs and seats black.


Above the fridge is an open cabinet to display items, cookbooks, and old witch hazel bottles.


I’m not a fan of cabinetry hardware (same a counter stools – ugly vs. so pricy). All of the lower cabinetry (primarily drawers, which are the best) have beveled edges on the top and bottom to easily open and close the drawers and doors.

Also the corner cabinet is drawers. Yes it is. You lose a little bit of space, but man oh man, so much more functional.

All of the appliances, with the exception of the dishwasher, are from Fisher-Paykel. The clean, simple and sleek lines complimented the simplicity of the kitchen design very nicely. They are mid-range price point, about on par with KitchenAid, and have good consumer ratings. We’ve been really pleased with them so far. The dishwasher is Miele, which was actually ccheaper than the Fisher-Paykel dishwasher (that are notoriously prone to break down).


We had a big old 100 year old farmhouse sink in our old house and loved it dearly. It was so big you could practically have a bath in it. If I could have taken one thing with me from that old house it would have been that sink. No matter though we found a close second in this 33″ wide fireclay sink from Alfi. I like the double sink too – much less wasted water. The faucet was a splurge for us: Bronze-finished Brizo Solna.

We have a LOT of counter space. The last few places we lived had absolute minimal counter space making cooking a frustrating experience. The Pattern Language recommends somewhere around 14 feet of counter space! To be safe, we did 16 feet.

The outer counter is a poured white concrete. It has a creamy, organic finish to it and compliments the white oak quite nicely.


The entire east wall and north corner (where the open shelving is) are tiled. We like to frequent (fancy hipster) coffee shops, the counter to ceiling subway tile, was certainly inspired by these places.


Who doesn’t love a corner window seat?

And, yes, that’s a bear skull on the counter… it’s vintage from the 70s though so it’s not that cruel… and it probably died of diabetes or something.

Wood: Grains, stains, and lye washing

I’ve had a few comments lately relating back to a previous post “Real Scandinavian White Washing” that I wrote awhile ago. A couple folks were asking if I could post some comparison photos of the woods we used in the house.

We used three primary woods in the house (after much debate and hours of Pinterest):

  • White Pine – plain sawn for the main floor ceiling
  • White Oak – rift and quarter sawn for the kitchen cabinetry and main bathroom vanity
  • Douglas Fir – rift sawn for the window sills, doors and trim

All of these woods are in the same colour range, fairly light and soft. We do have some furniture with dark woods of walnut, cherry, and teak, but we wanted the palate for the house to be light and airy.

A couple things to consider about wood is how it is cut as this can dramatically change how the wood will look and how it will take stain or oil.

From Schenk & Co.

This image very nicely shows how distinctly different (in this case a red oak) can appear simply based on how it is cut. Plain sawn wood is the most common and affordably available wood as there is very little waste and it is easier to cut. However, oak is (or at least was) often desired as quarter sawn – giving very interesting “flecking” of the wood grain. A lot of heirloom antique furniture was made with quarter sawn oak. But this is only present on the very outer portion of the tree so it is generally less available.

We chose to do rift and quarter sawn white oak due to the softness of the finish. I was not interested in any “wild” grain on the kitchen cabinetry. Plain sawn oak reminds me too much of the 80s/90s golden oak craze, which gave oak such a bad wrap for a long time. Rift sawn white oak has made oak cool again.

We chose to do white oak on the lower cabinets, island and butcher block. This photo also shows the lye-washed pine ceiling.

For the white pine ceiling, we only had the option of plain sawn and to be honest I’ve never seen pine as anything else other then this cut.

White pine ceiling in the bedroom

Douglas Fir though might be one of the most interesting wood grains. It is DRAMATICALLY different as plain sawn or rift sawn. We chose to do rift sawn for the sills, doors and trim as it is more subdued. It also has a much tighter grain, making it appear pinkish in colour. However I built a little media box in plain sawn Douglas Fir – there is nothing plain about this grain though! It is bananas!

This is a media box I built in the basement for the TV. This is CRAZY wild plain sawn douglas fir grain. I like it – in small doses like this.
All of the doors on the main floor are rift sawn douglas fir. Comparison between the white pine and douglas fir.
Comparison of rift sawn douglas fir window sills next to the white oak window seat bench.

All of the woods shown we treated first with the WOCA wood cleaner to remove any crap, dirt, etc., and to open the grain to receive the next treatment. Everything was the brushed with the WOCA wood lye “white”. This is the key ingredient. The lye removes the yellowing agents from wood – these are the things that cause wood to discolour over time from white to yellow – as most lighter wood do (spruce, pine, fir, maple). The lye enhances the natural colour of the freshly milled wood.

NOTE: An important consideration here though is that you need to keep the wood out of the sun before treating it with the lye. Even a few hours, and definitely a few days, of exposure of the untreated wood to UV rays will cause it to yellow. The lye won’t be able to help you much if the process of yellowing has already started.

We were very careful to make sure the wood was covered and tarped during its transportation and we kept it in a dark area while it acclimatized before applying the treatments.

All of the white pine and Douglas fir was then treated with two coats of WOCA master oil “white”. The oil penetrates the wood and protects it from dirt and wear. I much prefer oil-treated wood over varnished wood. The natural hand that you get with oiled wood is far more pleasing to me.

The white oak cabinetry though was treated, after the lye, with a protective poly spray coating – standard for kitchen cabinetry. This is a clear coat so it does not change the colour of the wood, but simply provided a very strong protective layer to the wood.

I’ll plan to post a some house tour photos shortly to give you an idea of the space.

High Performance Windows

One of the things I am most excited about in our house are the windows. We have a lot of windows in the house, 25 to be exact. And they are not terribly small. Even before knowing anything about energy efficient building, I’d always loved homes with large expansive windows overlooking a beautiful view. However, when building an extremely energy efficient home, the placement, size, glazing, window to floor ratio, and type of window matter a lot.

First, and perhaps most important, is which direction your windows should face. Obviously in the northern hemisphere, the sun is in the south. Therefore, the majority of your windows should face south and be able to take in the sunlight through the winter months when the sun is lower in the sky to provide some passive heating. Conveniently the sun is higher in the sky in the summer, so as long as you have properly sized overhangs or shading in the summer then you can prevent overheating. Recently we were in a neighbour’s house that was not designed with energy efficiency in mind. They have large south windows that are completely exposed, as well as some larger east and west facing. Even though they would (theoretically) have a great view, they had the interior blinds drawn on almost all of the windows!  Interior blinds and shades do very little to prevent overheating as the light/heat has already entered the space and will simply heat the blinds and radiate inside anyway.

For us, we maximized our southern exposure (but not too much as you can still overheat in the winter – even at minus 40° Celsius). And minimized our northern, eastern and western windows. Fortunately for us our best view is to the south and east. We do have a couple large windows on the east side of the house to take advantage of the river valley and our unobstructed view of the sunrise (to not put windows there would be foolish). We would have liked to have put more windows on the east, but in order to do so that would require shutters on the exterior, thus obstructing the view anyway. Shutters are really the only way to “shade” light from the east and west as the sun is too low in the sky throughout the year (at sunrise and sunset) to actually “shade” it. As for the north we don’t have much of a view, and so only have two windows. One in a bedroom for ventilation and fire safety and the other in the hall for ventilation. Northern windows really don’t provide any benefit in energy efficiency and are actually an energy penalty.

As for glazings, these are really amazing and can help with heat gain or blocking unwanted heat.The glazing does not at all block the view. I think of it like sunscreen. On the east and west windows, you want more sunscreen because you don’t want to overheat. On the south you want minimal sunscreen because you want that good passive heating in the winter (as long as you account for passive shading in the summer).

Ok so what type of windows do you buy? Wood, PVC or fiberglass? We had really hoped that we would be able to afford fiberglass windows. These are simply the best for energy efficiency, durability and quality. The frames themselves are made of 60% glass (fiber-glass) and so they move with the expansion and contraction from the heat and cold of the windows. Consider -40°Celsius outside and +20°Celsius inside. That is a 60° change that occurs through about a one inch space. PVC and wood will flex and bend at a different rate then the glass, leading to more air leakage, reduced air seal, and eventual failure of the window over time. Fiberglass however does not have the same issues. Duxton Windows has some excellent information on their website.

Duxton fiberglass windows

Now that we had an idea of what we wanted, we needed to determine which supplier to go with. We priced out Duxton (fiberglass), Accurate Dorwin (fiberglass) and Plygem (PVC/wood). We did not consider any of the crazy German imported windows. Shockingly, people actually do this (this is where the economics of Passive House and extreme energy efficiency clash with reality and sustainability, as I’ve written about before). I was actually talking to a house designer the other day who was raving about some German windows they’d started to import. Indeed they are impressive windows – but they are coming from fricking Germany! My thought when building a “sustainable” home is that we should be really considering if we are spending our money wisely or if it could have a better effect elsewhere (for example, spending $15,000 more on windows to get a marginal energy improvement versus $15,000 in solar panels). AND if you are importing your high performance windows from 4000 miles away and shipping them on a cargo ship across the ocean… well… is that sustainable?!

Anyways, I knew that the fiberglass windows would be more expensive than wood/PVC – but how much more was the question? When we received the quotes back I was pleased to see that the fiberglass windows came in only 20% more expensive then PVC. For the added efficiency, durability, warranty and, not to mention the larger viewing area of the window (fiberglass is stronger therefore can have a smaller frame and more glass) it was a no-brainer to go with fiberglass. We ended up choosing Duxton over Accurate Dorwin due simply to the fact that our designer had recommended them. The price difference between the two companies was marginal.


In designing the house and choosing the windows I tend to think about what Christopher Alexander of the Pattern Language says: “light on two sides of every room.” I loved reading this book because it was all about aesthetics. Written in the 1960s, it did not give a crap about energy efficiency. It was a nice reality check against all of the energy efficient dogma that in some cases can really get out of control. You still need a home that you actually want to spend time in.

Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander

Final planning

We have spent the past 9 months exhaustively planning this house and finally the light at the end of the tunnel is almost here. The design is done, the quotes have been tendered and received, the design fees have been paid (almost), the development permit approved, and we are just waiting on the appraisal from the bank and stamped drawings from the engineer. Initially the planning process was fun, but about three months ago we had pretty much had enough of it.And now, well, we have definitely had enough of it.

I keep thinking to myself “haven’t we talked about this house long enough??” But there are so many important little details that go into the planning and building of a house. I may have had a small idea of this before, but really this whole process shines a completely different light on the importance of Planning. When moving into and renovating an old house, you learn to live with and work with the idiosyncrasies and nuances of an old house (nothing being level, that weird door, baseboards not quite lining up, that one awkward window that looks onto nothing, and so on), but when building a house, you really don’t want to start off with any of those weird things. I am very detail oriented and like to research things to the n-th degree, much the chagrin of my wife from time to time – except in this process. My anal-retentiveness has finally come in handy!

If you are planning to build a house, and are not detail oriented then you need to learn to be one. Otherwise you are liable to get a home that may be close to what you had asked for but not entirely what you had expected. I cannot tell you how many little mishaps, potential mistake, errors and omissions we have already caught and corrected. It is crazy to me at times, but really there are so many aspects that even the people you are paying to know about all of it may miss some of these details or do it the way they always have done it (even if you specifically say you want something else). So it’s all on you. You’re the only one there to make sure that it is done how you actually want it. Which means you have to research and know enough to at least ask the questions that will lead to ensuring that you will get what you want.

I have learned now to tell our team that when we want something, I ask to confirm that it was done, and then follow-up to make sure. I’m certain that the various people working on the house will be completely sick of me pestering them by the end, but I don’t care. I want to make sure that our house turns out as we have intended it to.

And if there is something that I don’t know about then I ask someone who does know to check it. And then double-check it and then triple-check it. Incredibly, on triple-checks we have still caught errors.

In the end, all of this stuff is just on paper. We actually haven’t even done anything yet. So we will see what the actual build process goes like. I’m hoping (wishful thinking perhaps) that because of the significant focus on the details in the planning stages that maybe, just maybe, the build process will go smooth. But this hope is not going to allow me to assume anything. At all. Ever. IMG_2699

Final house design

Well, after twelve revisions and eight months of planning, designing, redesigning, changing, scrapping, planning, and redesigning some more we’ve finalized the house design at last. It’s funny, we had been so sure of what we wanted and didn’t want before, but gradually this all changed. I’m super happy with the design. And although it is different in some ways from our original plan (i.e. basement, open kitchen/living/dining room), it is more true to our original vision then we had ever expected: a quaint, simple, modern farmhouse. It’s crazy to think about how far our design gradually strayed from this original vision before we finally were guided back towards the root of what we wanted.

In a lot of ways designing the house has been a full circle – as we meandered away from our vision, only to come back to it. It was also an evolution. The final product was far better than what we had ever originally envisioned. So I suppose you must go through the process. You are never going to get what you want the first time through, despite how confident we felt that we knew exactly what we wanted. We didn’t. We needed to explore. We needed to think about all kinds of scenarios and possibilities before finally discovering what it is that we really want.

And so, here it is. I cannot wait to see this become a reality.


Is Passivhaus Appropriate for a Cold Canadian Climate?

This is something I’ve been wrestling with since we decided on building a super-insulated, highly energy efficient home. And really this is something that I think a lot of builders, architects, and designers of eco- and green homes have been debating about since the Passivhaus concept came to North America in the past few years. When we initially got going on our project I was pumped on the possibility of ‘not needing an active heating system’ – as Passivhaus enthusiasts have touted their homes on. However, that really is not quite true.

Although many of these Passivhaus homes in Europe don’t necessarily use a boiler or furnace as we do in Canada, they do still technically require some way of heating. Often that is a heating coil attached to the existing ventilation unit that warms the incoming ventilated air. For our house, the possibility of using such a system simply made no sense. Passivhaus often justifies some of its standards on “user comfort.” Certainly I agree that user comfort is critical, however, in order to meet some of the rigorous standards of Passivhaus, people have tended to sacrifice comfort to meet the certification. For example, in our project, indeed, we could have used this method of heating as a secondary option, but it would not be sufficient to meet all of our heating needs despite the super-insulation. Furthermore, we need a thermal mass (concrete floor) to take advantage of the solar gains to cut down on our heat load. Those of you who have walked around on a cold concrete floor know that this is pretty uncomfortable (as a physiotherapist, I cannot count the number of people I see who complain about knee, back and foot pain due to walking on concrete floors at work). That being said, a warmed concrete floor is very pleasant, and strangely comfortable. Given that we wanted a concrete floor for both thermal mass and aesthetics, it made no sense to me not to use in-floor hydronic heat. In this case, we had to choose user comfort over Passivhaus standards.

Another major criticism of Passivhaus standards is both the annual energy consumption and annual heating/cooling consumption standards. These standards are very strict at 120 kWh/m.sq./yr and 15 kWh/m.sq./yr. I’ve previously written about these as well. But is this actually possible to attain in a very cold Canadian climate? Indeed this has been shown to be possible in a handful of projects in Canada. But not that many. Why is that? Recently we’ve run our numbers through the HOT2000 software, which is a Canadian software for energy efficient homes to calculate energy consumption. It’s not as thorough as the PHPP Passivhaus software, but it’s pretty good, and a lot cheaper to have done.

Ok so here are our numbers:

House size 1240 sq.ft (main floor) + 1240 sq.ft (basement) = 2480 sq.ft of treated floor area = 230 m.sq of total treated floor area.

Estimated Annual Space Heating Requirement: 7159 kWh / 230m.sq. = 31.13 kWh/m.sq/yr

Estimated Annual Electrical Space Heating (minus expected wood stove use): 2342 kWh / 230 m.sq. = 10.18 kwh/m.sq/yr
Estimated Annual DHW Heating: 3409 kwh
Estimated Annual Appliance: 8760 kWh
TOTAL ENERGY CONSUMPTION: 19,328 kWh / 230 m.sq = 84.04 kWh/m.sq/yr
First let me explain a couple things. One, we expect to use our wood stove a lot in the winter. I love a wood fire, there is something incredibly comforting about watching wood burn. Two, I do think that the annual appliance use is on the high side and I would also argue that our total space heating is also a bit high when comparing it to the Mill Creek NetZero house, an eco-house project using the same wall system in a similar climate. Nonetheless, let’s give these numbers some context:
Our House Projected Annual Space Heating = 31.13 kWh/m.sq/yr
Our House (minus wood stove heat) Annual Space Heating = 10.18 kWh/m.sq/yr
Passivhaus Annual Space Heating Standard = 15 kWh/m.sq/yr
Ok, so you can look at the comparison numbers I’ve provided above for Passivhaus and the average Canadian home versus our place at 31.13 (overall heat requirement) and 10.18 (electrical space heating requirement). Both of these numbers are A LOT less than the Canadian average. I’ll use the 31.13 number because it is the highest possible use we would need in an extremely cold year without using any wood heat. That is 77.3% less than the average house in Canada! Pretty awesome! And yet, it is twice as high as the Passivhaus standard!!
I’ll remind you that we are using the following: R100 ceiling, R56 above grade walls, R32 below grade walls and R32 under slab insulation. We are also having significant south glazing and minimal north glazing. We will be installing the highest efficient fiberglass windows and we expect the airtightness of the house to meet the Passivhaus standard of 0.60 air changes per hour at 50 pascals. So, WTF?
The bottom line here is that Saskatchewan is a lot friggin’ colder than Germany. The number of heating degree days in Germany in 2014 was 3100. The number of heating degree days in Saskatoon in 2014 was 6035. Well, that’s about twice as much, which would account for our need for twice the heating load – makes sense! Therefore, I have a hard time understanding how the standards of German Passivhaus can be applied to a very cold Canadian climate.
If we look at the overall Total Energy Consumption (84.04) however we are actually significantly lower than the Passivhaus standard of 120. This begs the question of, in Germany, what is accounting for the 105 kWh/m.sq/yr difference of energy if not for heating? Is their appliance and hot water use that much higher? Or is this particular standard higher to account for the larger homes and buildings that are typically built with Passivhaus? (This brings up another criticism of Passivhaus penalizing smaller homes. Check out this article for an exhaustive list of criticisms of Passivahus in North America. Passivhaus US and Canada have recognized the limitations of the European standards and are taking steps to try to modify these to be appropriate in North America. However at this time, the standards are still up for debate).
Anyways, what do these numbers really mean, except to compare apples (Germany) to oranges (Saskatchewan)? We weren’t going to be pursing Passivhaus certification anyways (at an approximate $10,000 price tag for certification, I’d rather put that money into solar panels). But I think it provides an interesting discussion. In the end we will be building a highly efficient, super-insulated house that will consume about 75-80% less energy than the average Canadian house. We truly won’t know our overall energy consumption until we actually live in the house so all of these numbers are a bit arbitrary.
Yes, you can build a “true” Passivhaus on the prairies, but you’d be looking at making huge financial investments and sacrificing comfort to meet the standards.
I’m reminded of a discussion I had with a local energy efficient home builder recently. He said: “Anyone can build an extremely energy efficient house with enough money. But to build one on a budget, now that is something impressive.”
In the end, we are building on a budget, which should come in at or below the cost of building your average stick framed house and our energy bills (100% electric) should be in the range of $100/month. I think I can live with that.

The Dreaded Basement

Gah, yes, I know. We didn’t want a basement. I know, I know we said that from day one. But dammit, it was unavoidable. I guess there is a reason, a good reason – several good reasons even – why people have them:

  1. They make economical sense. It’s true.
  2. We need a place to store our crap.
  3. It allows a place to hide the ugly things you don’t want to look at – water heater, ventilation unit, deep freeze, cellar.
  4. It gives you a place to hide noisy things – laundry, children?

There are probably more reasons but these are the big ones that I’m using to justify it (and the 5th reason being that we really had no choice in the end, but whatever). Ok, very well, but the question had now become: how do you make a non-walk-out basement inviting?

Natural light is obviously a big thing. Our main level is going to be very bright with considerable southern exposure. Our topographical study (in addition to crushing our dreams of a walk-out basement – not quite) also showed us that in order to have a ground level entrance with no stairs to the front door (north side) and a deck on the south side, we would have a hard time getting much southern light to the basement.

Window wells are how most people who want a ground level entrance to the main floor get light into the basement. But if there’s one thing I like less than ugly basements, it’s window wells. They seem tacky and unnatural to me. Basically we realized that we would only be able to put at most three to four windows into the basement primarily along the east side. The basement was simply not going to be as bright and open and airy as the upstairs, it was just impossible, unless we wanted to change everything in the main level, which didn’t make any sense. So how do you make it a place that you wouldn’t mind hanging out in and spending some time?

In our last house, the basement was dark, poorly lit and had very low ceilings. Most people who have basements like that simply avoid the space and use it as a place to dump the things that they don’t really care about – laundry, the Christmas tree, maybe some old paint. But when we were renovating that old house, I wanted to experiment down there. The rest of the house was quite grand and executive. The basement was different. So instead I had some fun. I built a floor to ceiling shelf with plumbing pipe that I used as a workshop for wood carving. In the little bedroom we painted the walls, floor, and ceiling in bright white and used it as our summer bedroom (uninsulated and way cooler in the summer), and the third room I covered with OSB sheathing and made into a wine/beer cellar. Before I’d completely avoided the basement. But after that reno, I loved spending time down there. So we got thinking. Why not just embrace the underground space? The upstairs would be bright and open. The downstairs, dark and cool. We came across this ICF (insulated concrete form) system that was pretty much perfect. It’s called “Nudura One.” Most ICF is made like this:

Standard ICF

A certain thickness of foam on the outside is chosen, depending on your desired R-value, then 8” of concrete, and then another 2” of foam on the inside. This is required so that the concrete has a “form” to sit between (the two layers of foam). The unfortunate part about this was then you have to frame and drywall the inner foam layer. This results in a fair bit of cost in materials and labour to finish it (although your insulation value and airtightness is excellent with ICF). The Nudura One solves these inherent problems. Instead all of the insulation foam goes on the outside of the wall. The form is made by using a jig to secure sheets of plywood to the inner layer and concrete is then poured between the foam and the plywood. After the concrete dries, you unscrew the plywood and – Ta Da! – you have yourself a finished, highly insulated, airtight, badass concrete wall. Yes, if you want, you can still finish the interior wall, but why? You got a badass concrete wall right there. Done.  <br><br> 

Land Topography

If we couldn’t put our whole house on one level then could we do a walk-out basement instead? If you have a nice natural hillside then a walk-out basement is entirely possible and can look quite nice as the house appears tucked into the hill and protected by the slope. I started to realize that the walk-out basements I really didn’t like were the ones that I tended to see in the City, where really there are no natural hills. In the City, and primarily in upper-class suburbia, they man-make the hills and sit houses in them. They look pretty stupid and have led to my general despise of them. That being said, a proper natural site for a walk-out is kind of appealing.

On our land, there is the river valley itself that is steep, however I would feel very uneasy trying to place our house just so on the edge of the river’s slope, even if the geotechnical survey that we have (provided by the former owners) says it could be done. Still, our land has a nice slope to the edge with some natural ups and downs to the land. Perhaps a walk-out could fit in there. But how the heck is one to know?

Well, a topography guy can tell you apparently!

The only way to really be certain is to have someone come to your land and perform a topographical survey. It’s pretty neat (and fucking expensive). They walk around the site taking GPS readings every 10 feet. This allows them to put all of the points into a crazy 3D map showing all of the elevations of the land. They use the same program (ArchCAD) as our house designer, so once the topographical study is done and placed on the program, the designer can then simply drag and drop the house on various spots on the site and see what looks best. Fancy stuff. The future, I tell you.

So, which spot did a walk-out look best on our land? You ask.

Well, none. No spot worked. Not even close. They all sucked.

At best it would’ve looked forced (a la suburbia). At worst it would have looked even more ridiculous. We would have had to excavate so much dirt away and landscape and grade that we would have to completely destroy our build site to make it even remotely possible.

Unfortunately we had to spend $900 to find out it wouldn’t work. But I guess now we could let it go and not question it or something. I dunno.

Anyway, so we’d now come to the conclusion that a single level slab was not practical and a walk-out basement was not possible. That left us with the third and final option: a basement.